It’s not exactly hilarious to watch a small child explain that his biggest fear is drowning.
I mean, the kid has a point: Drowning is a legitimate fear for anyone. It seems like a horrible way to spend one’s final moments on Earth, and only a liar would guarantee that swimming skills can protect against a watery death in every situation. Watching an adorable, bespectacled tot in a fuzzy sweater with snails on it wrestle with that grim reality isn’t very funny, but it certainly grabs your attention.
Thus begins John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, the most unusual comedy special of 2019, and definitive proof that studio executives should always give John Mulaney money to do whatever the hell he wants.
When a September profile of the comedian in Esquire announced his next project would be a variety show starring children, I was personally disappointed. Mulaney is among the finest and most consistent stand-ups working today. What fan wouldn’t want a new hour from him on as regular a basis as possible? Of course, Mulaney also does a lot in comedy beyond stand-up. He’s part of the creative team behind Documentary Now!, along with an A-list roster of fellow semi-recent SNL vets. He lends his voice to Big Mouth and added some extra levity to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse last year. He also appears to be the only former SNL writer who can come back and host the show just about whenever, to promote nothing in particular. Obviously, if someone with Mulaney’s comedic range wants to make a children’s variety show instead of a new hour of stand-up, you can trust that it’s going to be funny.
The very good news is that it’s also, at least in this case, charming, dazzling, and surprisingly moving.
John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch is “a show for kids, by adults, with kids present,” as the host says during an introductory scene. It’s similar in form to the sadly bygone edutainment kids shows such as 3-2-1-Contact and The Electric Company that Mulaney grew up on, but very much its own beast. According to a recent interview, the creator was inspired when longtime collaborator Marika Sawyer played him some songs from the Maurice Sendak musical, Really Rosie, featuring backup assistance from a crew called “the Nutshell Kids.” Once he was set on the idea, Mulaney sought assistance from New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company to cast 15 preternaturally talented youngsters, ages 8 to 13, as the Sack Lunch Bunch. He and Sawyer then wrote an hour and change of freewheeling sketches, bits, and songs that remain true to the spirit of the source material, but filtered entirely through the sensibilities of their creators and informed by the personalities of the young cast. They also put together a bespoke set of guest stars, including Natasha Lyonne, Richard Kind, and Jake Gyllenhaal (in fully deranged Okja mode).
Just as Documentary Now! is more faithful tribute to documentaries than parody, the Sack Lunch Bunch is only somewhat a satire. There’s a dash of early-aughts Sesame Street send-up Wonder Showzen in the tweaked recreation of certain tropes, but without the psychedelic nihilism or mean-spiritedness. Instead, there’s a purity and joy that comes across, especially in the songs. Co-written with Emmy-winning composer Eli Bolin, these are full-scale Broadway numbers, culled from Mulaney childhood fixations such as whether flowers exist at night. They’re not all funny necessarily, but they’re imaginatively staged, industrial-strength sticky, and belted with gusto by America’s Next Top Theater Kids. (Along with ringers such as Hadestown’s Tony-winning André De Shields and, uh, David Byrne.)
The tone zigs and zags between warm and earnest to playfully arch and self-aware, only occasionally leaving children behind to throw in some more biting jokes far above their heads. It’s phenomenal whole-family viewing, even though that tonal roller coaster often whooshes through dark terrain. Death comes up a number of times (I counted at least eight). We hear about schizophrenia, accidental shootings, and losing an eyeball. The opening soliloquy about the fear of drowning is actually part of a leitmotif in which all the players (adults included) offer testimonials about their greatest fears. Some of them are silly, but many are similarly bleak—and quietly profound.
This is what the show is ultimately about, beyond general entertainment: the fears that unite us across all demographics. Shows like Sesame Street don’t always shield kids from life’s darkness, because their makers are wise enough to know that kids are already thinking about this stuff, and not only can they handle hearing about it, but they might even take comfort in knowing how un-alone they are.
Everybody’s afraid of death; not just the dying part, but the idea that life goes on without them, or that they will go on after their loved ones pass. Some members of John Mulaney’s Sack Lunch Bunch already have healthier perspectives on that ultimate inevitability than most adults do, including myself. We can learn a lot from them.
As the kid who’s afraid of drowning says at one point: “Everything’s going to be fine, David Byrne.”